Only 33 years old, Daniel Calvert has already spent more than half of his life working in kitchens.
By the time he was 23, he was already cooking at the highest level -- as Thomas Keller's sous chef at Per Se in New York -- before moving to Hong Kong in 2016 to open neo-bistro Belon for which he later earned a Michelin star.
Relocating to Tokyo last autumn, Calvert is now preparing to launch a new restaurant infusing the elegance of French haute cuisine with an element that he finds lacking in fine dining today: a "sense of comfort and genuine warmth."
SEZANNE, which takes its name from a medieval city in France's Champagne region, opens on July 1. Located on the seventh floor of the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi in the Japanese capital's financial district, the restaurant has been transformed after an extensive and costly remodeling into a tranquil haven of clean lines and cool tones, with motifs inspired by Zen rock gardens.
Architect Andre Fu designed the restaurant's interior, along with the hotel's casual dining outlet, Maison Marunouchi, which resembles a modern brasserie equipped with shiny green tabletops, red-cushioned chairs and a massive pink-quartz sculpture of a teddy bear by American artist Daniel Arsham.
While SEZANNE features all of the trappings of luxury you might expect to see at a high-end French establishment -- Baccarat crystal, Lelievre silk drapery and pleasingly tactile Christofle plates -- the atmosphere exudes easy conviviality, rather than formality. Italian-born maitre d'hotel Simone Macri, who gained a reputation for his polished but personable approach to hospitality at Jaan in Singapore, leads the service team. Overseeing it all is the hotel's food and beverage director Stephane Rabot, who hails from three-Michelin-starred Caprice in Hong Kong.
"Technique is of course important, but guests come back for an experience that feels like a comforting embrace," says Calvert. "No one wants to feel like they're going on some kind of pilgrimage, which is something our industry has gotten carried away with recently."
Calvert attributes his down-to-earth attitude in part to his modest upbringing in Surrey, an hour south of London by train.
Unlike many industry counterparts, he didn't grow up learning to cook at his grandmother's knee, but started preparing meals for his family to help his mother, who was working two jobs as a bank clerk. Quickly discovering that he had a knack for the trade, Calvert says that by the time he turned 13, he already decided to become a chef.
"I enjoyed having the chance to provide for and make people happy through food," says Calvert.
With no access to the internet at home, Calvert started using his weekends to travel to London to seek out the city's most respected restaurants and learn what he could about food by analyzing their menus. Leaving school at age 16, and yet to master the basics of seasoning or holding a knife, Calvert knocked on the back door of long-standing celebrity haunt The Ivy where he was hired as a line cook.
"The chef took a chance on me, and when that happens you feel so grateful," recalls Calvert. "I've been lucky many times in my career, so I've always felt a sense of responsibility to make those who helped me feel like they made the right decision."
Now executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi, and responsible for the property's high-end restaurant, Calvert wants to bring a new perspective to the city's fine-dining scene.
Part of his plan is to "bridge the gap" between upscale and more casual restaurants through a series of collaborations with international chefs such as Danny Yip of Cantonese restaurant The Chairman, which topped the list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants this year, and Matt Abergel of Hong Kong yakitori restaurant Yardbird.
"Normally a place like the Four Seasons would only consider inviting chefs with two or three Michelin stars, but these restaurants make incredible food. Although we're working in totally different styles, I think we can do something interesting together," he says.
While the service will follow a tasting menu format, Calvert notes that the kitchen is already developing a repertoire of dishes to serve to return guests.
"The food is presented like an event, and we want to create a sense of anticipation," says Calvert. "When a restaurant serves the exact same menu -- even in the same season -- there's no excitement. You feel like just another number."
At a preview a couple of weeks prior to SEZANNE's official launch, the meal opens with Calvert's take on radis beurre, a snack of radishes and butter typically found in French bistros and on home dinner tables. The humble root vegetable comes dipped in a buttery jade-green coating studded with flecks of red radish skin, giving it the appearance of a tiny Faberge egg.
Precision is tempered with playfulness in dishes such as dashi-laced avocado mousse topped with Petrossian caviar and overlaid with a wafer-thin disc of shaved avocado. Foie gras terrine is limned in a border of apricot-and-Sauterne gelee, bedazzled with a subtle dusting of silver leaf. The center of the terrine contains a surprise: a circle of pigeon confit that tastes almost like Chinese sausage.
Whole Hokkaido chicken poached in yellow wine and stuffed with girolle mushrooms conjures memories of Shanghainese drunken chicken -- a nod to Calvert's tenure in Hong Kong. For dessert, there's a slice of Miyazaki mango, crowned with Chantilly cream, that conceals a delicious secret. The final bites -- perfect mouthfuls of chocolate ganache brownies -- recall the comfort food he craved in New York.
Originally scheduled to launch on June 1, SEZANNE's opening was delayed due to an extension of the COVID state of emergency in Tokyo requiring restaurants to limit operating hours and alcohol service. Even though some restrictions are likely to remain through July, Calvert is eager to move forward.
"I'm just ready for people to come, and then come back so I can welcome them home," he says.